Malign influence campaigns: What are they, and how can communities fight back?

Originally Published on LinkedIn (1/2/2020)

Photo by Frédéric Barriol on Unsplash

In 2015, thoughtful and intelligent civic leaders at the University of Missouri organized an information campaign around the hashtag “#PrayforMizzou” designed to bring awareness, attention, and action to the community in response to deplorable racist and homophobic activities happening in and around the campus.

Days after launching the campaign within a small group of like-minded activists, they received a disturbing tweet from a fellow activist named Jermaine. The tweet contained a photo of a young black child with a bruised face and the text,

“The cops are marching with the KKK! They beat up my little brother! Watch out! #PrayforMizzou”

Recognizing the immediate danger an event like this could inflict on their communities, they retweeted and amplified the message across their social media platforms. One prominent civic activist, who was then the elected head of the student government, independently posted the following on Facebook:

“Students please take precaution. Stay away from the windows in the residence halls. The KKK has been confirmed to be sighted on campus. I’m working with the MUPD, the state trooper and the National Guard.”

That activist statement was untrue. The valuable civic campaign that successfully pushed the campus into action against critical community threats had been hijacked. In fact, despite some individuals insisting they witnessed the events, everything from the point Jermaine tweeted the picture of his little brother and rumored the local police marching with the KKK was a professionally crafted mistruth. In this instance, the Mizzou community was not being openly invaded by some backwoods inbred hate group, but in reality under attack from a more sophisticated opponent, Russia’s Internet Research Agency.

The goal of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and its successors is to amplify division, confusion, and conflict within communities. With the Mizzou incident, the IRA researched the prevailing divisions in the community and expertly designed content to cause further conflict and confusion. They posed as an active community member on Twitter under the handle @FanFan1911, performing as a young man named Germaine devoutly passionate about community and social justice issues. As soon as #PrayforMizzou started trending, the Russian researchers immediately saw the opportunity to damage community collaboration, and that is what they did. Armed with a disturbing photo found on the internet, a bot army to amplify the message, and willing participants in the community, the Russian agency was able to amplify racial tensions and sow discord in an academic community of 30,000 people.

Incidents like #PrayforMizzou continue around the globe. These community threats require community responses, but in today’s cluttered media ecosystem, it can be challenging to know where to start productive community collaborations to battle propaganda and malign influence campaigns. One technique used to get to the truth of the matter is to add more SALT to discussions. In this context, SALT stands for Share Responsibility, Ask Questions, Lower Intensity, and Trust Each Other.

Share Responsibility

Collaboration is easier than anticipated. Defending our communities from malign influences requires effective collaboration across neighborhoods. When community members put aside their personal ambitions to work together on a common goal, magical things can happen. Understanding shared responsibility is critical to countering disinformation. While each of us is responsible for combating misinformation, the task is too big for any individual to tackle alone. Sharing responsibility means acknowledging that we need each other to combat the threats to our communities and committing to strengthening our community by creating opportunities to set aside our personal or political differences and work together for common solutions. Always more easily said than done, sharing responsibility involves recognizing and valuing the contributions each community member can bring to the table in the service of the greater good. Protecting our communities from this renewed threat will require new and different types of community collaborations that may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable to us at first. Ultimately it will be our ability to work together that makes our communities stronger and more resilient in the face of malign influences like Russia’s Internet Research Agency.

Ask Questions

Collectively asking questions and engaging critical thinking helps communities inoculate themselves against disinformation campaigns. Each question asked and inquiry opened provides the community with an opportunity to increase group knowledge and improve collective decision making. As group knowledge and decision making improve, so may communities’ ability to identify and counter disimfornation introduced into their informational ecosystem. Keep in mind, the primary goal of most propaganda is not to deceive an individual into action but to overwhelm audiences’ ability to think critically. By working together to dedicate the necessary time and resources to ask critical questions about issues and events, communities can strengthen democratic processes and reduce the severity of damage malign influence campaigns inflict.

Lower Intensity

As any actor can attest, the intensity of a message has no relation to its truth. While it may often feel counterintuitive, lowering the intensity of an informational exchange can help participants more effectively comprehend the subject matter discussed. In Mizzou, malign influencers were able to outmaneuver activists by feeding them disturbing and intense information when hackles were already raised in defense of the Mizzou community. The intensity of that message combined with the emotional exhaustion common among activists overwhelmed their well-documented finely tuned critical thinking skills and put the community at an increased risk of danger. Malign influencers rely on emotions to manipulate audiences; they prey not only on peoples’ anger, fear, and hate but also their hope, love, and optimism. The emotional hacks used are part of the effort to overwhelm and short-circuit audiences’ ability to think and make decisions for themselves. By appropriately calibrating the amount of pathos in a discussion, communities can more easily identify fact from fiction.

Trust Each Other

When malign influencers attack a community, they are placing a bet that their ability to communicate with an audience is more powerful than the audience’s ability to communicate with each other. In Mizzou, attackers counted on the distrust already present within the community and sought to amplify it beyond repair. By taking the time to recognize a shared responsibility to fight disinformation, asking the right questions, and lowering the intensity of community discussions, communities can build and rebuild trust, reducing the potential damage malign influence campaigns can inflict. In the end, the best thing we can do to push back against those vying to amplify conflict and confusion within communities is to trust in our ability to build stronger communities together.

To learn more about malign influence campaigns and how they can affect communities check out the following links:

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